The declining number of students taking Literature was put into the spotlight recently during a parliamentary debate. Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh posed a question to Ms Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law and Education, regarding the huge decline in the number of students taking O-level pure literature. In 1992, 16,970 students took this subject. However, this number has dropped to about 3,000.

Ms Indranee cited the introduction of Combined Humanities as a subject in 2001 as the main reason for the decline in the number of students taking literature. Students are required to take this subject, which includes social studies, and an elective in geography, history or literature.

This incident has sparked off a small debate in Singapore and on the newspapers regarding the value of literature in modern day Singapore. Many educators and former literature students wrote in to the Straits Times Forum page expressing their concerns on the issue.

The decline of literature
Many believe that the declining number of literature students in Singapore is a result of the ceaseless pursuit of academic performance and economic utility. Some believe that literature is not as useful as compared to other subjects like Mathematics, Computing, and the Sciences, as the government and the economy are focusing on these high value industries for development. Some also believe that literature is a hard subject to score a distinction for national exams, even though the distinction rate for pure literature has increased from 35% to 40% from 2002 to last year.[1]

There are also negative perceptions of literature as a boring subject. Comments by students included the “lack of exciting discussions in class”, the irrelevance of some examination texts to Singapore students, and teachers “penalising views that fall outside the suggested answer key”.

As a result of these factors, the number of students taking literature is declining. There are also instances where students wishing to take pure literature are rejected as there are insufficient students taking the subject.[2]

Promoting the study of literature
Many contributors to the Straits Times Forum page highlighted the benefits of studying literature. Winston Chin Chee Wei, in his contribution to The Straits Times, said that literature allows us to “learn about human relationships, the complexity of human nature and the cultural forces that shape the world around us”. Furthermore, we would develop “skills of reading beneath the surface, thinking critically and expressing our perspectives, both in speech and writing”.[3]

Schools are also taking steps to inculcate in students a sense of appreciation for this subject. At CHIJ Katong Convent, role playing is used to encourage the students to understand and appreciate texts. River Valley High School has a weekly reading circle named Quirky Quills to “instil in students a love for reading and appreciation of literary writing”.[4] Some schools have gone even further, making literature a compulsory subject for upper secondary students, like in the case of Pasir Ris Crest Secondary in 2007.[5]

Thinking questions
  1. Should literature be made compulsory? Why?
  2. What are some factors that students should consider when they are choosing their subject combinations?

[1] More subjects to choose from, so fewer take pure literature, The Straits Times, 26 February 2013
[2] Why students like or dislike the subject, The Straits Times, 02 March 2013
[3] Value of literature goes beyond grades, The Straits Times, 10 March 2013
[4] Schools go beyond books to get students to love lit, The Straits Times, 19 March 2013
[5] Reigniting the spark of literature, The Straits Times, 3 March 2013